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Estrada ends prestigious Pathway career full of triumph and obstacles

MARICOPA -- All alone on the free throw line, under the lights of the biggest basketball stage Arizona has to offer, Aleina Estrada ended her unparalleled basketball career at Sequoia Pathway in the only way that seemed fit, calmly sinking four straight free throws to clinch a second straight state championship for her Pumas.

It wasn’t an easy game by any means. But then again, nothing for the senior has ever been easy.

It wasn’t easy growing up in the shadow of seven siblings, including four sisters who became highly successful basketball players.

It wasn’t easy putting on the varsity jersey for the first time as a fifth grader, playing against girls almost twice her age.

And it definitely wasn’t easy stepping onto the court after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, never knowing when the next seizure was going to strike.

“Through everything that she’s been through, I would have thought that she would have already given up and quit by now,” said Dee Estrada, her coach and mother. “But it actually made her stronger.”

Aleina’s basketball journey started not on a court, but at home. In addition to Aleina’s biological siblings, the Estradas also foster, so there are always plenty of kids running around the house. The girls — Aleina and her sisters Alexis, Alyssa, Jesse and Brianna — would play different sports, but would always return to basketball.

Aleina, the youngest of the group, started dribbling a ball at age 3 under the direction of dad, Jesus. While her sisters might disagree, she claims she quickly established herself as the best ball handler in the family. Eventually, she would become the best shooter as well. All this was in a family where multiple girls went on to play college basketball.

Aleina laughs while Dee cringes recalling life in the house when all the sisters were growing up. There was usually a ball being passed around, with hoops hanging over multiple doors around the house. Things would break so regularly that the girls instinctively knew their roles in trying to put things back together before their mom noticed. Dee wouldn’t know until she tried to move a plate or cup and it would fall apart.

“It’s crazy in our house,” Aleina said. “Someone is always dribbling a basketball. Someone is always trying to shoot over someone, messing around. In our old house, (mom) had a set of six cups, and we would knock them down one by one until there was only one left and she had to move it before it would break.”

In the Canyon Athletic Association, the charter-filled league Pathway competes in (the school is moving to the Arizona Interscholastic Association next school year), teams can use players who are younger than the high school level on varsity teams. However, Pathway had a rule that players must at least be in the sixth grade.

Dee managed to convince then-Athletic Director Nate Wong to just give Aleina a chance to practice with the varsity team one day. He allowed it, and it became apparent very quickly that Aleina was the best ball handler at that practice. She was in.

When she did play varsity, Aleina joined her other four sisters to form a one-family starting five. This came much to the confusion of opposing fans, who thought the announcers were confused when crediting “Estrada” with every basket.

While CAA is very lenient when it comes to age, they do have one condition. Underage players are only allowed to compete in four high school games before they must make a choice to play there full-time or join the middle school team. Dee, acting as both a coach and a mom, decided Aleina should stay with her own age group until eighth grade.

Seventh grade brought her first state championship, and her first legendary moment. With 10 seconds left and the Pumas up by two in the middle school final, Aleina was facing heavy pressure from the defense. She tripped but maintained her dribble. The defenders tried desperately to take the ball from her, but she wouldn’t let them and dribbled away the final seconds all from her knees.

“I’m not just saying this because she’s my child — I’ve been coaching a long time, and I’ve never had an athlete that has a higher IQ,” Dee said. “She really has a high IQ for basketball, something you really can’t coach. She has a ton of heart and is very self-disciplined.”

It was a triumphant time on the court for the whole family, as her sisters also won state at the high school level that year. But behind the scenes, problems were starting to rise.

Aleina had been suffering from seizures, including a couple times while playing. Doctors conducted a routine MRI her freshman year, and that was when things took the turn for the worst. Dee remembers being on the road when they called her and told her to come back home so they could talk, and she knew immediately something was very wrong.

The next morning, doctors told Dee and Jesus they had found a tumor on the bottom of Aleina’s brain. Because of where it was, they couldn’t operate to remove it without causing some brain damage, so they recommended simply monitoring it with regular appointments.

That first year, Dee stopped working so she could focus on Aleina and the rest of her family, but her daughter didn’t let the diagnosis stop her from playing. In fact, basketball — and the girls she got to play it with — became her comfort in a time of crisis. No matter what, she had her sisters and she had her teammates.

“I kind of felt like I had to play,” Aleina said. “When I was off for a little bit, I missed it a lot. I didn’t want to be at home. They tried to keep me home, but I would show up to the practices.”

On the way back to Maricopa from a game, Aleina had a seizure in the van. By that point, her teammates had been with her for as many as eight years, so they immediately rose to the occasion. Dee was driving the van when one of the teammates shouted that Aleina had a seizure but they had it under control. One girl was already talking to 911, another was figuring out where they were on the freeway, and another had Aleina barricaded on the seat without constraints. That’s when the Estrada family grew to include those who took care of her.

Of course, it did have an impact on her game. Dee noticed she was moving a little slower than normal, and mentally she was dealing with the anxiety of never knowing when that next seizure was going to come. She managed to play through those fears, but the doubts lingered.

This past year or so, though, scans started showing something amazing: the tumor had started shrinking. Now, doctors hope that within the next couple visits they will show that the tumor is gone. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but with that news has come a run on the basketball court for the ages.

Pathway won the past two CAA state championships, both against East Valley Athletes for Christ.

The first came in 2019, when as luck would have it Aleina broke her ankle in the playoffs and still played in the championship game to lead her team to its second title. Dee knew she would face criticism for letting her daughter play injured. But she said when you have someone who’s been through something as traumatic as a brain tumor, where they don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next, you don’t ever put limits on what they can do.

With a healthy ankle, but an arm she hurt during a fall just before leaving for the championship game, Aleina recovered from a rocky start to come back many times during the 2020 championship, including down by four points in the final minutes. Her free throws all went in, and they won.

In both games, Estrada was the calm hand in control of the offense, able to control the game through confident ball-handling and timely shooting. Those are skills that are sure to translate to the college level. However, someone can’t go through everything Aleina has gone through without raising some issues. There has been a reluctance to move away from the support system that has gotten her through all the hard times, even if it’s just a short drive away to an Arizona college.

Dee has been trying to calm those fears, knowing that opportunities are there to be taken, not shied away from. She thinks her daughter is arriving at that same place, and they hope to have a decision soon of where she’s going to play next year.

“We’re trying to get her as excited as we are for her,” Dee said. “You know, anything can happen. Anything can happen to anybody at any given time. So why worry about a dumb seizure?”

Whatever happens next year, Aleina and the Estrada sisters are sure to be remembered for their three state championships and countless contributions to the girls basketball program. Aleina isn’t one for a lot of words; she tends to let her game speak for herself. But her mom knows how much she’s mean to everyone around her, and how much her teammates have meant to her.

“I want them to remember that she stayed,” Dee said. “When everybody else left and Pathway — it’s no secret we’ve had some hardships here. She flat-out said I don’t care. I want to finish my senior year off strong, and what they’re doing at the school isn’t affecting me. She didn’t want to leave her teammates alone.

“It’s always been about representing her family, her community and he school. And I think she’s done all that.”

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Business growth boomed in Maricopa over 3 years
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — The latest figures on business growth throughout Arizona show that Pinal County, and specifically Maricopa, has climbed the charts in the past three years.

According to financial technology company SmartAsset, Pinal County ranked second in business growth among Arizona counties, falling just behind Maricopa County. Of course, that was long before the current COVID-19 setback.

Maricopa County stood at 6.1% business growth over a three-year period from 2017-19, while Pinal County sat at 5.3%. To get this number, SmartAsset looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Study, U.S. economic analysis and building permit surveys.

“We looked at the change in the number of businesses established in each location over a 3-year period,” SmartAsset’s website states. “This shows whether or not people are starting new business ventures in the county.”

Jennifer Bostian, economic and community development manager for the city of Maricopa, foresees business growth in Maricopa continuing to expand in numerous industries, with the exception of industrial business.

“We’re seeing retail growth and we expect to see that continue,” Bostian said. “Government and education is probably going to be pretty stable. We’re seeing more and more professional services coming into town, especially doctors, attorneys, tax folks, insurance — those kinds of offices are becoming more and more in demand.”

Data provided by Bostian shows the number of businesses in 2013 has nearly doubled in the last seven years, from 129 Maricopa businesses to 249 in 2019. The largest jumps among the categories were consumer services, government and social services, finance/insurance and real estate.

“They’re following where they can make money,” Bostian said. “With the business opportunity the way it is and with our population growth the way it is, the services are really starting to come into town now.”

The number of workers in Maricopa has also significantly increased, correlating with the number of businesses, from 4,205 employees in 2013 to 4,880 last year.

“As we develop job centers — like Estrella Gin Business Park where we’re going to have more available office product — you’ll see more jobs come into the area. Right now it’s a hard market to break into because there’s no place for them to actually go into business,” Bostian said. “We just don’t have a lot of vacancy. So as that product is developed around the city, I think we’ll see more and more jobs being available here in the city.”

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New Maricopa library officially underway with shovels in the dirt
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — A groundbreaking on Saturday saw the first shovels enter dirt on the lot just south of City Hall in preparation for a brand new library with all the bells and whistles.

“Compared to our wonderful but small 8,000-square-foot library, which we’re lucky to even have that, we’re going to be able to have ... enough money to build a really, really beautiful library,” said Nathan Ullyot, director of community services for the city.

The new library will be triple the size of the current library at 24,000 square feet and will feature a number of new amenities. Ullyot says it will boast an adult wing, a young adult room and a youth and children’s section with a special doorway just for kids. On top of that, there will be meeting spaces both large and small, a lobby for special events and a whole host of new technology and computers, including a 3D printer.

This, compared to the library’s humble beginnings, shows how far the city has grown and changed over the years. Most Maricopans know the library’s current location on Smith-Enke Road, which formerly was the Maricopa Cultural Activity Center and was christened in 2009.

Before that, however, the library had a long and challenging past. It began in unused buildings around Maricopa, even occupying an insurance office at one point in the 1970s. It was flooded in 1983, and what was salvageable was shuffled to another unused building. It was christened in 1988 and “was the pride of Maricopa,” according to its website. It wasn’t until the city was incorporated in 2003, however, that it was donated and given the title of Maricopa Public library.

“For the Friends of the Library, the people who’ve been advocating for library service in our town, the parents of small kids and the folks who use the library on a regular basis, it’s a very cool thing to see from a connectivity standpoint and from a citizen standpoint that ‘Wow, we’re getting something new and fresh in our town,” Ullyot said.

Though the planning phase took about a year to complete, Ullyot says the feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. With projects like this, Ullyot said the timeline can cause frustration, but the quick turnaround has left residents happy.

“I think everybody’s actually really excited about how quickly it’s moved with the leadership of the council and with our city manager, Rick Horst, who’s been able to find the money that we have through development services and things like that,” Ullyot said. “It’s just amazing how quickly it’s happened.”

The timeline for completion of the library is more or less a year from Saturday’s groundbreaking, though Ullyot made sure to be clear it depends on the same smooth sailing it's had for the last year.

“I think a year from now, we’ll be able to do a grand opening — assuming everything goes OK,” Ullyot said. “I mean, obviously, there’s some things up in the air now, but if everything stays on course, about a year.”

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Event canceled, council meeting still on in Maricopa amid COVID-19 fallout
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — A groundbreaking ceremony for Oasis at the Wells multifamily housing scheduled for Tuesday has been canceled due to investor concerns about the spread of virus COVID-19, while city council meetings continue cautiously, with modifications.

The cancellation of the groundbreaking ceremony comes after some community members voiced concerns over the continuation of a previous library groundbreaking on Saturday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Governor Doug Ducey currently recommend limiting gatherings to 50 people or less.

“The health and safety of our community members is our top priority,” wrote city spokesman Adam Shipley in a press release. “In following health officials’ advice of keeping those who fall in the high risk categories safe, and to avoid large crowds in order to reduce exposure, we find canceling will be the wisest course of action.”

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s city council meeting will go on, but Mayor Christian Price advises those who are sick or are in contact with someone who is sick to remain home and watch online.

“Our meeting for this Tuesday will be moving forward, however, we are respectfully requesting that people participate through the technology of TV broadcast, Youtube, Facebook, etc. and thereby ‘self limit’ the potential population inside the chambers at this time,” Price wrote in an email.

He acknowledged the current recommendations by state officials, but believes the meeting will not garner nearly as many people as past meetings.

“While it’s true the recommendation is to limit meetings to less than 50, we feel that due simply to the very nature of our light and seemingly uncontroversial meeting on Tuesday, as well as the fact that our city code states that we SHALL have at least one meeting a month, we intend to move forward with the meeting,” Price said.

However, this isn’t to say that city council meetings will continue allowing an in-person audience. Other cities such as Flagstaff have already closed their meetings to the public, referring people to watch online.

Price stressed that the situation will continue to be monitored and will change if they do not think in-person audiences are in the best interest of the city’s public health.

“This is an ever evolving situation with such fluidity that the next official city council meeting could be totally different based on the recommendations and possible implementations of new laws by then,” Price said. “We will have to wait and see as things continue to evolve and as do the recommendations from the above mentioned agencies.”

Farm Science Day at the Arid-Land Research Center, operated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is canceled this year following USDA’s recent advisory to avoid all non-essential gatherings. The event was scheduled for March 21.

“Canceling our event is in the best interest of protecting the health of our staff and volunteers, and citizens in Maricopa and surrounding communities,” wrote Steve Naranjo, director of the research center, in an email. “We could reschedule for a later date but, given the uncertainty of the current COVID-19 situation, that is not tenable.”

Flogging Molly’s scheduled performance at The Event Center at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino has been postponed due to concerns about the coronavirus.

The Irish-punk rock band was scheduled to take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Although a date has not yet been set to reschedule the event, ticket-holders are being asked to retain their tickets.

“All retail tickets purchased from Ticketmaster for the March 13 concert will be honored for the rescheduled event,” a post on the Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino Facebook page said.

Once the new date is set, customers will have the option to request a refund at that time.

The Pinal County Fair, scheduled March 18-22, was also canceled.

Organizers posted a message on the fair’s website saying: “The Pinal County Fair has an obligation to protect the youth and the communities we serve using the best information available. Social distancing is needed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus disease. It is with a heavy heart that we have to inform you that for the safety of our community, the 2020 Pinal County Fair has been canceled.

“We know this announcement is a disappointment to our staff, volunteers, neighbors, organizations, businesses and sponsors who have been working so hard to produce an incredible event for everyone. We wish everyone good health and happy fun days ahead.”

The message said carnival presale tickets will be refunded.

Arizona schools to close for at least 2 weeks

PHOENIX — Arizona public schools will be closed for at least the next two weeks.

In an announcement Sunday, Gov. Doug Ducey and state schools chief Kathy Hoffman said they do not want schools to open on Monday. The closure will run through at least Friday, March 27, with the pair promising to reassess the need beyond that.

In an open letter to families and educators, the pair emphasized that the closure will address only "operational issues.''

"Doing this will not stop the spread of COVID-19,'' they said.

"The safest place for children during this time is at home,'' the governor and schools chief continued. "They should not be cared for by elderly adults or those with underlying health conditions, including grandparents and other family members.''

The issue of what are the options for parents who cannot stay home was only tangentially addressed.

"For families for whom that is not an option, we are coordinating with partners in the non-profit, faith-based and education communities, including the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA to make available childcare options to families who need it,'' Ducey said in a separate online video he made with Hoffman. No specifics were provided.

Of note is that the decision comes less than a week after state Health Director Cara Christ suggested that closing schools was not a good option. She said it was better for children to remain with others rather than end up elsewhere, mixing with other children and potentially spreading the disease even further.

The governor had no explanation of why that argument no longer makes sense in his mind.

But Ducey also was facing pressure from another front.

Earlier Sunday, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas sent a letter to the governor saying his organization was calling for students to remain home "until education leaders and state policymakers can present a detailed plan of support that assures students will be returning to safe classrooms and healthy school sites.''

"While any school closure can be disruptive, it is reckless to pretend we are sending our teachers, staff, and students into safe environments Monday morning,'' Thomas wrote. "Arizona needs time to assess how healthy our schools can be and what the rest of the school year will look like for our students. We must act now for all our safety.''

In some ways, the joint announcement was anticlimatic.

Officials in dozens of school districts already had reached the same conclusion. This just makes it official -- and covers the more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide.

The pair said they were in no rush to issue such an edict.

"We've worked hard to keep our school doors open,'' the announcement says. "These are important assets in people's lives and many families rely on them for nutrition and access to health care.''

What changed, they suggested, was the developing situation.

"Staffing and potential absences are a concern in many districts,'' the announcement says.

"This decision was not made lightly,'' Ducey said in the video explaining the action. "But it's the right thing to do to bring certainty and consistency to all Arizona schools.''

Some of what will happen now is up to individual districts.

For example, the announcement says the state is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow schools to begin "summer food service operations,'' providing boxed meals as needed. Parents were told to get specifics with local schools.

Also not yet decided is the effect on employees, both teachers and classified staff ranging from cafeteria workers to bus drivers.

"We're working together to make sure you don't see any disruption to your pay,'' the announcement says. "We'll also be consulting with our district and legislative partners to determine the extent of any makeup days.''

Also unclear is what happens to statewide achievement tests that are scheduled, tests that are linked to federal aid.

"We're currently engaging with our federal partners in the event that we need to secure a waiver,'' the pair said.

The announcement also urges school officials to make plans for what happens when school resumes to ensure "a safe learning environment.''

Some of that involves issues like "social distancing,'' the idea of keeping students separated from each other to the extent possible. That, however, could prove difficult in classrooms given that the Centers for Disease Control suggests a six-foot margin.

Other post-reopening measures include regular intervals for administrators to wash and sanitize their hands as well as guidance on how to properly and frequently sanitize equipment and surfaces.

"We all have a role in confronting the impact of COVID-19,'' Ducey said in the video. "We're going to act together and we're going to get through this together.''